MBA: Worthless Piece of Paper?

Is anyone up in arms yet?


From a Reader

value of the mba - by anne.oeldorfhirsch via Flickr
value of the mba - by anne.oeldorfhirsch via Flickr

Anne from the US us-flag is a recent subscriber to the Project Management Career Newsletter.
She hit reply to one of my messages to pose a question and get my take.  Thank you Anne, for permitting me to share some of our exchange to benefit others!

The following is excerpted from Anne’s message:

“Thanks Josh. I’m about to complete my MBA and was wondering if that will ever help me rise in my PM career? I’ve already been in IT for 13 years, working as a PM for 7. My co-workers seem to think my MBA is a worthless piece of paper, but I feel I’ve learned a lot in the last two and a half years.”


Value of the MBA

joshnankivelEducation is never wasted as long as you apply yourself and really learn the material. Having an MBA never hurts your prospects. Just know that the “piece of paper” is not the true benefit…the education it symbolizes is.  If you are growing professionally in the direction you want your career to go, excellent.  Don’t listen to the haters.

Coping Mechanism

The “worthless piece of paper” syndrome is common. Sometimes what they mean is that it’s worthless to them personally. They didn’t learn the material and have no interest in the business side of things evidently, so of course they are right. Perhaps they are jealous, that is certainly possible as well. I see the same thing with certifications, other degrees, etc.

It’s a coping mechanism. People don’t like change, even when other people around them are changing. If you are doing something like this, it makes them wonder if perhaps they should be doing something to advance their own careers. That makes them uncomfortable, because they are not doing any personal development.

It’s Up To You

My own career started taking off and I started enjoying work more when I realized it’s all up to me. Instead of just hoping my environment would change, I decided to change it myself.

I started by looking for companies where I might want to work (not looking for jobs). I contacted people in HR or in project management at these companies and chatted with them on the phone, via email, even meeting them face to face just to talk about the company and where I might fit into it some day, even though they weren’t hiring at the time.

Handling Negativity

I’ve battled negative attitudes at the workplace. I remember a time where I actually said the childish phrase “If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” I felt like Thumper. I started responding to people calls to action like “So, what are you going to do about that?” or “I see. Let’s go talk to _____ and make sure they understand why that won’t work.”

After people started seeing that they weren’t going to get any sympathy or complacency from me for their “Complaint Du Jour”, I didn’t have to hear it much anymore. True, some people stopped talking to me….their loss. Most just changed their behavior around me.

Share your experiences in a comment below!


6 thoughts on “MBA: Worthless Piece of Paper?”

  1. I got my MBA from the University of San Francisco, which is nowhere near the top rankings for MBA programs. It has never opened any doors for me or made me eligible for anything except entry-level jobs. Fellow alumni have even shut me out of their networks because they consider my military background to be worthless. Prospective MBA students should only bother applying to the top MBA schools; othwerwise, forget the MBA and just keep working.

  2. This is great advice for all professionals:

    “look for companies where I might want to work. Contact people in HR or in project management at these companies and chatted with them on the phone, via email, even meeting them face to face just to talk about the company”

    If each individual has the diligence to look outside their current work space, environment, or knowledge domain to find more efficient, flexible, and comprehensive processes as they are performed elsewhere, all projects will benefit. But most individuals are either too hesitant or incompetent to subject their decisions to peers for review. An MBA, PMP, or other certificate will not guarantee successful projects, but the lessons learned from their bodies of knowledge will assist to promote, coordinate, and compile the essential variables that would result in successful projects. The contributions from MBAs and PMPs will have an appraised value assigned by organization, department, region, individual, and industries. A company demanding these credentials either knows the value of that perspective, or has never had it and thus unrealistic (Rain Making) expectations for the position.

    -Ryan Gensel

  3. User Avatar

    In my experience, the paper helps get you in the door (land the job, get the promotion), but whether a given person will succeed in a given job depends on many factors. You need to have the right set of skills, knowledge, and talent. I can cite hundreds of examples, but one that comes immediately to mind is about an R&D manager I once knew. He had a Ph.D. degree and was an absolutely brilliant scientist and engineer. But, as a leader of engineers and scientists? Not so much. His ‘paper’ ahowed he had ample persistence and intelligence, but it said nothing about his people and managerial skills. The result: he didn’t survive the meat-grinder and was miserable trying.

    Moral: Get the paper as a means to an end, but don’t expect it to carry you forever. Only hard work and aptitude, and a pinch of good luck, will get you where you want to go.

    1. User Avatar

      I agree Loyal. The resume/CV is important, but only to get that initial attention. After that, it’s all about your skills and experience, and your ability to communicate them effectively.

      To compare it with marketing and sales, the resume/CV is like the ad you see on TV for a big ticket item. If it’s good it will get your attention. If it doesn’t get your attention, all the rest doesn’t matter.

      Then, you have to have a good product. It has to fill a need the buyer has. They have to be convinced this product provides the best value and they can’t live without it.

      The resume is only the start!

      Josh Nankivel

  4. Great post, Josh and Anne! I received my MBA at night after starting my first “real” job following getting my Bachelor’s degree. I took 1 class a semester and summers off. It took about 4 years to complete and I greatly enjoyed the classes and the discussions. Also, coming from an Engineering background, the MBA helped to prepare me for the business side of project management. I learned about important concepts that I still use in my daily work today – NPV, ROI, Managing By Walking Around, Managing By Objective, etc.

    I have been fortunate enough to be promoted a few times since receiving my MBA, despite having colleagues that were in many ways more intelligent or more capable than I. However, I think my managers saw how I took initiative to further my career by working hard during my personal time to achieve my goals and they rewarded and compensated me appropriately as a result.

    I too have come across MBA “nay-sayers.” I have found that usually those that downplay MBAs or PMP certifications are typically those that want to keep the “playing field” level for themselves by limiting their competition.

    Anne, Never stop learning and don’t worry about what others say or when they try to discourage you from improving yourself!


    1. User Avatar

      Thanks for sharing your experience with us Ron!

      I decided not to do an MBA, but when I went back to school for a BS in Project Management I did something similar, working days and school at night.

      I found it was particularly useful to both work AND go to school because I could apply what I was learning in real time and gain a fuller understanding. If I had been only going to school it still would have been valuable, but both at the same time is a bonus!

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